Professor Michael Torres shares insights on $21 million project, new production of “Macbeth”

November 7, 2020

By David Rowe, Copy Editor/Staff Writer

Professor Michael Torres, chair of the theater arts department at Laney College, is thrilled about the renovation of the Odell Johnson Performing Arts Center scheduled to begin in about a year. There is, however, one thing he would really like to see added: a brightly lit marquee on the front. 

“We don’t have a marquee, which is really weird,” Torres said in a Zoom interview with The Citizen. “Every school that I’ve ever seen…has had a marquee. And we don’t have one. And that would let people know…what that [theater] building is. And it celebrates the students.”

Professor Michael Torres, department head of Laney theater arts department, is looking forward to the renovation of the theater starting one year from now. (Photo from Twitter)

Other than the absence of a marquee, Torres was excited to share details about the $21 million theater renovation project. His Zoom background shows an architectural rendering of the new theater’s interior and Torres has shared other interior and exterior images on his Twitter feed. These were created by architecture firm ELS Architecture and Urban Design, which also designed the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theater. 

Torres has not yet decided on the inaugural performance for the new theater, which will hopefully open in a post-pandemic world allowing for both the audience and actors to attend in person. He is leaning towards a play written by a student or faculty member. 

One thing remains certain: the performing arts center will still be named in honor of Odell Johnson, the former Laney College president who served the school for 17 years and retired in 2011. Torres, who was hired by Johnson 16 years ago, calls the former Laney head “a big advocate for performing arts” and observes that “without Odell, I doubt any of this would be in existence.”

The new performing arts center will feature an expanded lobby (dubbed “the atrium”) and a 40-seat “theater lab” on the third floor designed for smaller performances and media production work.

While looking forward to the opening of the new theater, Torres has more pressing matters on his mind.

Teaching theater arts via Zoom to his cohort of 30 students has been a challenge. Torres described performing arts as “living quality kind of art form” that depends on human interaction. To adjust to the new environment, he placed greater emphasis on approaches like audio monologues and video auditions. Torres thinks the basic acting process is the same whether on stage or over video. He cites the comparison made by actor Michael Caine that acting on stage is like a doctor with a scalpel while acting in front of a camera is like a doctor working with a laser.

Exterior of the new performing arts center at Laney College as designed by ELS Architecture and Urban Design. (Photo from Michael Torres’ Twitter account)

Torres is already planning his department’s production of “Macbeth” for April of next year. This version of the Shakespeare classic will take place in “an alternate Oakland” during a pandemic, Torres explained. Lines will be delivered by the actors in a rap cadence. Video will be a key element in the new play and Torres’ students are already capturing “apocalyptic” images of abandoned cars, deserted streets with potholes, and crows flying out of trees. These are being shot with an orange filter to replicate the eerie conditions seen by Bay Area residents in early September during the peak of the wildfires.

Torres hopes the play can be performed in person but is keeping open the option of doing it on Zoom, depending on the pandemic situation at the time.

Torres is proud of the graduates of his program who have established professional careers in performing arts. He knows of at least 20 who are currently working in the business. Given recent setbacks to the entertainment industry by the pandemic, Torres now encourages his students to focus on transferring to a four-year college and earning a degree, something he considers essential to their long-term career growth. “I think it’s really important for an artist to have these degrees…because it’s going to impact how much money you make and the connections you make,” he said.

One Laney theater arts graduate each year is guaranteed a “full ride” scholarship to San Francisco State, under a unique arrangement Torres established. “We’re the only state community college I’m aware of that has this kind of scholarship,” he said proudly. Since, on average, there are only four Laney graduates with theater arts degrees each year, Torres observed that each has “pretty good odds” of receiving the scholarship.

Currently the third smallest department at Laney, Torres describes his band of intrepid performers as “tiny but loud.” He hopes the opening of the new theater and innovative productions such as his re-envisioned “Macbeth” will attract more students to the theater arts program, even without the allure of a marquee.